Love him or hate him, Chicago Blackhawks Head Coach Joel Quenneville has helped breathe life back into hockey in Chicago. Since his arrival in Chicago in 2008, the team has won the Stanley Cup twice, made it to the Western Conference Final four times, and been in the playoffs every season. Obviously, this is not only Quenneville’s doing as he does have some amazing players on his roster, but there are other teams in the league with good players who have not enjoyed this kind of success. This past season, the Blackhawks found themselves a goal away from the Stanley Cup Final; however, getting there was a wild ride.
During the Western Conference Final, the Blackhawks essentially ran only three lines. Michal Handzus was basically left on the bench apart from penalty killing duties. Andrew Shaw had just returned from a knee injury that left him struggling a bit. Marian Hossa was shooting the puck every time he got his stick on it and it just would not go in the net. Patrick Sharp was having the same problem and eventually found himself on a line with Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith in the role of “checking line” wing. In short, the playoffs were pretty weird.
The regular season seemed long and drawn out (but still so very enjoyable) compared to the lockout shortened sprint to the Stanley Cup that the previous season brought. This season was really an experiment for Quenneville in my very humble opinion. Of course, I’m not saying he didn’t want to win. To the contrary, I think it was obvious he did, but he put a plan in place that was an expansion on his previous efforts in terms of player usage and deployment that is very unique in the NHL.
Typically, coaches will use their top lines against the toughest competition and often in difficult defensive situations resulting in the top center having a zone start ratio (defensive vs offensive zone starts) at or less than 50%. The top line center is commonly considered the most defensively responsible (players like Kopitar and Bergeron come to mind). The 3rd line, or checking line, may also be used against tougher competition to provide some breathing room for the top two lines. The 4th line is often made up of low minute players who are sheltered in usage and deployment. This means the 4th line faces lesser competition and frequently starts in the offensive zone to avoid defensive problems.
The Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks, two very good possession teams, are good examples of this. The player usage charts below can be read like this:
Top = Tougher Quality of Competition; Bottom = Lower Quality of Competition
Left = More Defensive Zone Starts; Right = More Offensive Zone Starts
Size of Circle = Time on Ice
Red = Negative Possession Numbers (<50% CF%) (darker red worse lighter red better)
Blue = Positive Possession Numbers (>50% CF%) (darker blue better lighter blue worse)
*player usage charts from the now offline www.extraskater.com
San Jose Sharks
Quenneville went against the grain in his usage and deployment of players this season.
2013-14 Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks “4th line” of Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith took on the burden of the defensive zone starts. At home, with the benefit of last change, Kruger’s line was used against the opponent’s top line once for every two times Toews’ line went against them. Occasionally this ratio was even more pronounced with Kruger’s line facing the other top line 1:1 with Toews’ line. On the road, Quenneville tried to maintain this game plan but it was a bit tougher to do, so Toews’ line carried the heavier Quality of Competition burden.
Using Kruger’s line as a defensively minded checking line allowed Quenneville to give his other three forward lines more neutral zone and offensive zone starts thereby optimizing the Blackhawks offensive attack. This also extended to the defensive pairings. Despite league wide perception that Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are the shutdown pairing in Chicago, this title is actually held by Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya.
The graph above shows the Blackhawks Defensive Zone Share, less on the left to more on the right, and the CF% (Corsi For %), lower on the bottom to higher on the top. Kruger, Oduya and Hjalmarsson had the highest Defensive Zone Shares followed by Bollig, Smith, Keith and Seabrook. One of the special things about the Blackhawks, is that despite this unique usage and deployment, at 5v5 this season all of the players maintained a CF% of greater than 50%, i.e. possessed the puck more than their opponents. We can see the changes in Quenneville’s tactics when we compare this past season’s usage with the prior season.
2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks
While Kruger, Hjalmarsson and Oduya still appear at the far right of the Defensive Zone Share graph from 2012-13, Keith shows up as well. There was a significant shift from 12-13 to 13-14 in the Defensive Zone Shares of the top forwards, Patrick Kane in particular. Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and several others also had tougher zone starts in 12-13 than 13-14. Patrick Kane’s CF% was noticeably improved this season with this change and despite his linemate problems.
When the usage of the players is compared over the last handful of seasons, the evolution of Quenneville’s player usage is easy to observe.
The differences in home and away usage and deployment from this past season are interesting as well. In 2010-11, Bolland, Pisani, Bickell and Dowell were used out of the defensive zone more frequently than the other players. Dowell was deployed more frequently against lesser competition whereas Bolland, Bickell and Pisani were used against tougher Quality of Competition. The possession numbers for that group were below 50%.
The following season, 2011-12, Bolland and Bickell carried the heaviest load in terms of defensive zone responsibilities, but were joined by Kruger and Frolik. Mayers also took some of this burden, but against far lesser competition than the others. While Bolland and Mayers finished the season under 50% CF%, Bickell, Kruger and Frolik all finished with positive possession numbers. Bickell’s usage is particularly interesting given the popular narrative of the past season that he is not defensively responsible. The more logical explanation for the change is usage is two-fold. First, Bickell brings more offensive prowess than Bollig, Kruger or Smith. Second, the evolution of the way that Quenneville wants to use his players has reached its apex and thus every player not on the checking line will have optimized zone starts.
This season, during away games, Kruger’s line saw a much heavier share of defensive zone starts than other lines. This is likely due to the fact that it was harder for Quenneville to get the matchups he wanted on the fly due to the home team having the last change. The more practical way to get those matchups was off of a faceoff because so many teams use their top lines for defensive zone faceoffs. While Kruger’s line still carried the burden of defensive zone faceoffs at home, they were a bit more spread out through the lineup.
Quenneville has been making adjustments to the way in which he deploys his players for several seasons. The usage we witnessed last season was the most extreme in terms of zone starts and quality of competition faced by a “4th” line not only in the Chicago Stanley Cup Era but also the most extreme throughout the league.
It would not be a surprise to see Quenneville attempt this experiment again this coming season given the success it brought last season. With the 2nd line center situation hopefully resolved for the time being, the same type of deployment should open up even more space for the three scoring lines to do their work.